×

Film Review: ‘Freak Show’

Trudie Styler's sparkly but superficial directorial debut is a gay coming-of-age tale that presumes more love for its fabulous hero than it earns.

Director:
Trudie Styler
With:
Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson, Abigail Breslin
Release Date:
Jan 12, 2018

1 hour 31 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5089534/

“Buckle up, darlings,” warns Billy Bloom, the adolescent protagonist of “Freak Show,” with his most salacious Bette Davis sneer. “I’m gonna take you on a little ride I call my life.” For a second, you sense some affectionate irony in Trudie Styler’s well-intentioned but woolly directorial debut: After all, many’s the privileged suburban teenager who has declared their life wilder and wackier than anyone else’s.

It doesn’t take long to realize, however, that “Freak Show” takes Billy (gamely played by British rising star Alex Lawther) entirely at his word. An out-and-proud, drag-loving high-schooler who delights in subverting masculine norms — and wears his resulting social isolation as a badge of honor — he’s certainly a beautiful misfit. Yet Styler’s surface-level adaptation of James St. James’ queer bildungsroman shows us more of Billy’s eye-popping wardrobe than his soul, as his superficially defined exceptionalism tilts ever less endearingly into narcissism; we leave this carnival-colored rallying cry to “stay true to yourself” unsure of who our hero truly is. A limited January release awaits “Freak Show” following a lengthy 2017 festival tour, but the film will presumably find its most receptive young audience online.

Styler’s peppy but thin foray into feature direction is especially disappointing following her strong track record as a producer of more singular, stylistically confident indies, from Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” Duncan Jones’s “Moon” to Maggie Betts’s recent “Novitiate” — a polar-opposite portrait of teenage rebellion in which the ascetic life amounted to its own form of freak flag-flying. Crafted with varnished competence but little personality, “Freak Show” is instead the kind of lightweight cinematic foray one might expect from a figure embedded in A-list celebrity: As Styler calls in glitzy cameo-sized favors from the likes of Bette Midler, John McEnroe and Laverne Cox, her film offers little more than a strained “Make America Great Again” gag in the way of sociopolitical texture.

Popular on Variety

In sketching out Billy’s fraught but fabulous existence, Styler, together with screenwriters Beth Rigazio and Patrick J. Clifton, wavers in her allegiance to reality or wish-fulfilment: The film’s depictions of classroom bullying don’t sit in quite the same world as a dreamy, sensitive star quarterback named Flip (Ian Nelson, as winning as can be in such a patently phony role) who can spot a real Jackson Pollock at a hundred paces. In either dimension, Billy’s immense economic privilege goes unchecked. Introductory scenes illustrate the formative influence of his hedonistic mother Mauvine (an auto-vamping Midler), described as “a living testament to grace, glamour and Gucci,” though his vast, expensive collection of drag outfits — ranging in inspiration from Adam Ant to the Little Mermaid — might just put her closet to shame.

Yet this gilded childhood — lit in suitably luxe fashion by cinematographer Dante Spinotti — soon hits a gray wall. For clunkily withheld reasons, Mauvine exits the scene, sending Billy from Connecticut to live with his moneyed but distinctly fun-free father William (Larry Pine) on a vast estate in a pocket of Southern suburbia that may as well be called Homophobiville. “Freak Show” doesn’t shy from blanket regional stereotyping, but then neither does its hero: Billy enters the local high school with such a superiority complex that he never bothers to learn the name of the one open-minded wallflower (AnnaSophia Robb) who initially befriends him. She is nonetheless entranced by his fluorescent charisma, as, in due course, is Flip, an Oscar Wilde-quoting jock-with-a-heart who acts as Billy’s no-homo admirer and protector. (We’re flirting with outright fantasy here.)

Chief among those unconverted to Billy’s brash charms is Lynette (Abigail Breslin), a self-righteous, Bible-thumping Mean-Girl-in-Chief and imminent homecoming queen who spouts Trump-style rhetoric by the lipglossed mouthful. She’s easy to loathe, but “Freak Show” practically casts as a villain anyone not dazzled by Billy’s inner light — a position that grows harder to cheer for as his own character remains so stubbornly, one-dimensionally self-oriented. “I gotta be me,” Billy insists, and rightly so — but when that state of being appears to preclude any interest in, or empathy with, even his most supportive peers, the message rings a little hollow.

It’s exciting to see Lawther, so affecting as the young Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and as a yearning gay teen in “Departure,” crafting such a multifaceted gallery of queer portraiture early in his career, but his brighest efforts can’t make Billy more character than concept. “Freak Show,” meanwhile, doesn’t exhibit an understanding of queer identity that goes much deeper than the sheer sequined fabulosity of Billy’s image. In an impassioned, inspirational school address — the kind to which you know the film is building from its first frame — he finally hints at broader understanding: “You’re all freaks too — isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?” It’s a tardy glimmer of solidarity in what’s otherwise aggressively, even oppressively, a glitter-strewn one-man show.

Film Review: 'Freak Show'

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Another View), July 4, 2018. (Also at Berlin, Edinburgh, LA Outfest, Taipiei, Tallinn festivals.)

Production: An IFC Films release of a Maven Pictures presentation of a Flower Films production in association with Bruno Wang Prods., CoMade STHLM. (International sales: The Works Film Group, London.) Producers: Jeffrey Coulter, Charlotte Ubben, Bryan Rabin, Ember Truesdell, Chris Miller, Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray. Executive producers: Drew Barrymore, Nancy Juvonen, Pierre Lagrange, Maya Sanbar, Sawsan Asfari, Sir Ivan, Jenny Halper, Bruno Wang, Samantha Perelman, Bobby Sager, Cathleen Ihasz, Nicole Ihasz. Co-producers: Anita Sumner, Alexandra Kerry, Stephen Mao, Chris Botti.

Crew: Director: Trudie Styler. Screenplay: Beth Rigazio, Patrick J. Clifton, adapted from the novel by James St. James. Camera (color, widescreen): Dante Spinotti. Editor: Sarah Flack. Music: Dan Romer.

With: Alex Lawther, Ian Nelson, Abigail Breslin, Bette Midler, Celia Weston, Larry Pine, AnnaSophia Robb, Willa Fitzgerald, Eddie Schweighardt, Laverne Cox, John McEnroe.

More Film

  • Nardjes A.

    ‘Invisible Life’s’ Karim Ainouz Drops Trailer for 'Nardjes A.’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    On Feb. 14 last year, Karim Aïnouz arrived in Algeria to trace via the story of his parents the Algerian Revolution which happened 60 years ago – its 1954-62 War of Independence from France. The uprising he very quickly started to shoot, however, was one happening right then, the Revolution of Smiles, whose first street [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Harrison Ford in 'The Call of the Wild': Film Review

    Dogs, in their rambunctious domesticated way, can lead us overly civilized humans a step or two closer to the natural world. So it’s only fitting that the best dog movies have saluted that unruly canine spirit without a lot of artificial flavoring. Hollywood’s classic dog tales, like “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Lassie Come Home” (1943), [...]

  • Adventures of a Mathematician

    Indie Sales Unveils Trailer For 'Adventures of a Mathematician' (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run up to Berlin’s European Film Market, Indie Sales has unveiled the trailer for Thor Klein’s “Adventures of a Mathematician” which had its world premiere in Palm Springs. The film tells the inspiring true story of a Polish-Jewish mathematician who got a fellowship at Harvard and went on to join the prestigious Manhattan [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    How Internet Backlash Helped 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Avoid Box Office Disaster

    It’s not a stretch to say Universal’s “Cats” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had two of the most polarizing movie trailers in recent memory. Both caught fire online for all the wrong reasons after fans on social media torched the questionable CGI. “Cats,” an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, used a new science called [...]

  • Neumond Berlin Germany Restaurant

    Berlin Offers Diversity in Restaurant Scene

    Berlin Film Festival attendees have a chance to sample the diverse cuisine of a foodie city. Some of the top pics for a pre-film repast: Adana Grillhaus  A hugely popular Turkish restaurant in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Adana Grillhaus now has a second location right around the corner. Popular on Variety Manteuffelstr. 86 +49 30 6127790 [...]

  • my salinger year

    Berlin Festival's New Selection Committee Takes Off

    Berlin’s new seven-member selection committee — four women and three men — comprises the core of new director Carlo Chatrian’s programming staff, which is led Canadian critic Mark Peranson. Peranson was the Locarno Film Festival’s chief of programming when Chatrian headed that Swiss festival. This year, Berlin is opening with “My Salinger Year,” starring Sigourney [...]

  • Mariette Rissenbeek Berlin Film Festival Executive

    Mariette Rissenbeek Faces Challenges as Berlin Festival Executive Director

    Making her debut as the new executive director of the Berlin Film Festival this year, Mariette Rissenbeek is facing some big challenges after taking over management duties at one of the world’s biggest public film fests. Rissenbeek and new artistic director Carlo Chatrian succeed Dieter Kosslick, who left an indelible mark on the fest after [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content